The King of Skid Row revisits Minneapolis' seedy underside

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These rough characters were hanging around outside the Stockholm Bar and Cafe, 33 Washington Ave. S., in 1953. The city worried that the streets of Skid Row were intimidating to downtown visitors. One journalist asked that year: "Who are these strangers in our Gateway?" Copyright Star Tribune Media Company LLC. Reprinted with permission.

Minneapolis was once home to a massive skid row in the Gateway District. Seasonal workers, pensioners, criminals, and alcoholics, dubbed “gandy dancers,” stumbled from bar to bar, bloodied each other in fights, pissed in alleyways, and passed out in cubicle-sized rooms in cage hotels. Church mission workers preached in storefronts in an attempt to save their souls while undercover sociology grad students tried to understand them.

Skid Row Minneapolis

Mill City Museum
Free with museum admission

John Bacich (a.k.a. Johnny Rex) was witness to it all as the owner of the Sourdough Bar, Rex Liquors, and the Victor Hotel. He captured the humanity, the depravity, and everything in between in photographs and on film before the area was demolished as part of the city’s urban renewal project in the early 1960s. Bacich’s footage was the basis of a public television documentary, Down on Skid Row.

Through 25 interviews with Bacich before his death in 2012, Star Tribune columnist James Eli Shiffer compiled the stories and images of this bygone era for his new book, The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis. He spoke with City Pages in advance of the book’s launch on Thursday night at the Mill City Museum.

City Pages: The term “skid row” tends to have negative connotations. In the case of Minneapolis, you found that to not be entirely true. What were the positives of such a place?

James Eli Shiffer: I think it’s a mixed picture. It’s been presented just as a blight upon the city. What I learned from researching this book was that it was, in fact, a community — an unusual community, but a community nonetheless. These guys had friendships and rituals and homes — and they lived there by choice.

CP: Johnny Rex had an interesting relationship with the men on Skid Row. On one hand, he seemed compassionate toward them. On the other, he was serving them alcohol, which is part of what was keeping them down. How did you reconcile that?

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After dark, the bright lights of the Gateway beckoned to both local tipplers and outsiders, who came here to finish off their nights on the town with cheap drinks. In 1953 the 24 Bar and the Bowery were at 24 and 26 Washington Ave. S., a few doors down from the Sourdough. Copyright Star Tribune Media Company LLC. Reprinted with permission.

JES: I didn’t try to reconcile it. I hopefully presented a picture of a complex person who was sustaining a lot of destructive behavior. He seemed to have a different ethical system. When someone would say, “I really need to dry out,” he would help them get dried out. He felt like he was keeping them safe, in a way. Taking after his father’s example, who owned a bar in northern Wisconsin, you don’t just take advantage of them. You take care of your guys.

CP: What was the role of women on Skid Row?

JES: Typically, the only time women were mentioned was if they were prostitutes. In terms of people living there, it was almost exclusively male. That was one reason why this community was viewed as so deviant in the eyes of people in the 1950s, when Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver were the ideal. A bunch of single men, living together, cheek by jowl, was viewed as deviant. The records of women in the Gateway are sparse, very sparse.

CP: How do you explain the absence of a skid row today? What happened to this culture of single, older men?

JES: They were kind of on their way out. Skid rows, post World War II, were dying because the guys were literally dying. The labor market really changed. They didn’t need the huge workforce to work on the railroad or cut trees up north anymore. These guys got pensions or Social Security. They were aging. It was very much like other cities that had prominent skid rows — Seattle, New York City — those neighborhoods are still around, but they don’t really have that population of single men anymore because they weren’t renewed by a new wave of seasonal laborers.

CP: What factors went into the demolition of Skid Row?

JES: American cities were really under siege in a lot of ways after World War II. You had the interstate highway system, making it very easy for people to live in the suburbs and get to jobs. The first enclosed shopping mall in America was Southdale, built in 1956. The cities felt like, “Are we even relevant anymore? People want to drive everywhere. They want to have easy parking. How are we going to survive?”

The city’s self-image, they felt, was very damaged by this central core of crumbling old buildings full of these unsightly men. Anybody stepping off the train at the Great Northern station or Milwaukee Road [Depot] would walk right into Skid Row. They thought, “We need to get this out of here in order for our city to move forward. Otherwise, people are going to abandon us. Women are not going to come downtown because they’re afraid of these guys.”

It was very much viewed as a defensive way to save the city and move the city into the era of easy parking and clean buildings. Old buildings were really viewed as obsolete at the time. It’s a very different attitude today.

CP: You mentioned in the book that something like the demolition of Skid Row wouldn’t happen today. Why is that?

JES: Minneapolis continues to tear down old buildings. It’s not that they’ll never do that. I think the scale of it was unprecedented. You had to negotiate with hundreds of land owners. You had to figure out how to relocate all of these businesses, how to relocate all of these people. It was a logistically huge thing, and incredibly expensive, but there was a big flood of money from Washington.

It’s just harder to get stuff like that done these days. Everything is much more expensive and there’s much more resistance in terms of lawsuits. But I also believe there is a different attitude about cities. We’re looking at sort of a renaissance of people living in downtown Minneapolis, tens of thousands of people, which was kind of unthinkable even 20 years ago. Part of what attracts people to downtown is it’s an interesting architectural streetscape. I think there would be more of an economic incentive now to renovate these blocks and reuse them because they’re really unique. They’d be viewed as an asset.

CP: Do you think the city was, or is, overly concerned with its image?

JES: Hard to say. Minneapolis has always been deeply concerned with its image. Is it overly concerned? I do think that a lot of what happened was short-sighted. I think we would have benefited from having preserved that streetscape today, although that’s not a guarantee that it would be this vital area now. I love historic preservation, but every city that has preserved its historic streetscape is not necessarily vibrant. Minneapolis has benefited to a certain extent from its willingness to be bold. Its path would have been very different had it not been this kind of activist government.

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Drinkers at the Valhalla Bar and Cafe, 105 Washington Ave. S., 1960. The special, posted above the bar: hot brandy, Mohawk 5 Star California Finest, 35 cents for a single, 50 cents for a double. And if you were hungry, you could slide over a couple of stools to the lunch counter. Courtesy of the city of Minneapolis.

At the same time, Minneapolis had not solved its so-called “problem” of the Gateway district for 60 or 70 years. From the late 1800s it was starting to get seedy. They tried a bunch of things to reverse the plight. They built Gateway Park and the Nicollet Hotel and the post office, none of which really changed the neighborhood substantially. I think there was a perception into the 1950s that Minneapolis really wasn’t activist at all.

CP: What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

JES: What was amazing to me was the scale of this community and how much character and personality and history that it had — at times, a disturbing, violent, degrading kind of community, but also these freely eccentric characters who lived there. It was so rich in a lot of ways and so different from the city that we know today. Downtown Minneapolis has got its problems; it can be a dangerous place, especially at night, but certainly there’s no place in the city that resembles what Skid Row looked like. There are little pieces, but nothing that would even come close to capturing it.

Click here to see more photos from exhibit.

IF YOU GO:

James Eli Shiffer's The King of Skid Row launch and "Skid Row Minneapolis" opening reception

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The corner of Nicollet and Washington was the heart of Minneapolis' Skid Row, also known as the Gateway District. In the mid-1950s, Johnny thought he could make it big there by supplying what the gandy dancers wanted and needed. This view shows Nicollet Avenue in the foreground and looks east on Washington Avenue. Courtesy of the city of Minneapolis.

Mill City Museum

7-9 p.m. Thu., Apr. 7

Free with museum admission


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